Pending New Jersey DWI Legislation Calls for Mandatory Ignition Interlock Devices, Reduced License Suspension Terms

As New Jersey drunk driving defense attorneys and experienced trial lawyers, my legal team knows quite a bit about the penalties that convicted drunk drivers face based on our state’s DWI laws. Aside from monetary penalties that can total upward of thousands of dollars in fines, fees and auto insurance premium assessments, license suspensions are quite common and jail time is sometimes attached, depending on the particular circumstances. Suffice it to say that New Jersey is not very easy on drivers convicted of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

When it comes to a potential license suspension following a DWI guilty verdict, the current laws are rather strict, to which anybody who has been found guilty of driving under the influence would likely attest. Still, there is a bill making its way through the legislature in Trenton that may seem bit more onerous, but which may make more sense to the many motorists who will be convicted of alcohol-related DWI in the future. We’ll also add that some critics have already said that the bill as it is currently written is, in a word, flawed.

These days, as any qualified drunk driving attorney will tell you, the minimum license suspension for a convicted first-time offender is three months, and that’s if the defendant’s blood-alcohol content (BAC) as measured by police is between 0.08 and 0.10 percent. If the measured BAC is 0.10 percent or above, then even a first offense will net a driver a minimum of seven months’ loss of driving privileges. Depending on the situation (such as offenses that occur within 1,000 feet of a school zone), that suspension period can be as long as 12 months.

Even though a person may think they can bear the fines and assessments involved with a DWI conviction, losing one’s license for any significant period of time can be a very heavy burden, as anyone who commutes to work or school will obviously agree. The latest news out of our state’s capital is that the current DWI statutes concerning license suspension may be doing enough to keep some convicted drunk drivers off New Jersey roadways.

According to news reports, this new bill takes a different approach to penalizing those drivers who may be inclined to go ahead and operate a motor vehicle even though their driver’s license has been suspended following a DWI-DUI conviction. Based on information out of Trenton, the new legislation calls for any driver convicted of DWI to have an ignition interlock device (IID) installed on his or her vehicle. For those readers who don’t know about these interlock devices, they prevent the driver from starting the engine if a breath sample taken in-car shows the motorist is not currently sober.

The good news for future DWI offenders may be reduced suspension terms, though critics say that the proposed changes to current law are not the best overall approach to curbing drinking and driving. Specifically, the suspension of drivers’ licenses would be greatly limited if the current legislation becomes law. More to the point, the thinking behind the bill is that IIDs themselves will prevent more drunk drivers from traveling on public roads than the current reliance on license suspensions, which typically keep the honest people honest. Interestingly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) supports the bill, which the organization says is a better way to changing driver behavior.

According to news articles, about three-quarters of all convicted drunk drivers flout the law and drive anyway, regardless of having their license suspended at the time. But, according to those who support the bill, many of the drivers who are convicted of a first-time DWI are not alcoholics and may never drive under the influence again. And the concern for those individuals is that the loss of one’s driver’s license can also result in the loss of a job; not an unreasonable assumption considering the three- to seven-month suspension that comes following a conviction for drunken driving.

Critics have also chimed in with a reminder that the law as proposed would not necessarily deter drivers who are inclined to drive while impaired by other substances, not necessarily alcoholic beverages. In fact, a driver who is high on illegal drugs or prescription medication could still operate an IID-equipped vehicle. Those against the current iteration of the bill suggest that these kinds of individuals are not social stigma of being convicted of DWI is not, by itself, enough of a deterrent to stop drunken drivers, nor is the stigma of having an interlock device in a car.

At this point the arguments from both sides will likely help to define the bill going forward. Whether there is some concession regarding suspension periods or allowing a judge to decide on a case-by-case basis the duration of the suspension, if any, has yet to be seen. Many anti-DWI advocates tend to agree that driving a motor vehicle is not constitutionally guaranteed, but rather a privilege. Time will tell as to how this new legislation ultimately will look as it nears approval down the line.

The Record: Preventing DWI, NorthJersey.com, January 3, 2014